Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Perfect Diamond

As I was scouring some of my unfinished blog postings, I stumbled across this one, which was apparently too painful for me to continue at the time. It was called "A Perfect Diamond," and, pen to paper, this is what I had:

"This posting will be about why I love baseball. Can't write about this right now. Because it sucks."

Now, I implore any true baseball fan to deny that this is true. Baseball is a game of inches. A game of history. A game of strategy. A game of heartbreak. The only game where the defense controls the ball. A game where success is determined not by how often one succeeds, but by how often one does not fail. If you can hit a ball 2.5 out of 10 times, you are successful. In the classroom, those percentages will earn you an F. On the field, those percentages will earn you 2.3 million dollars.

Few of my blogs have an agenda. They are usually chopped full of top 5 drivel and elitist film or book critiques. But this post has a mission. It's simple, really. I'm sick of my friends telling me how boring baseball is. I don't care if you like the game, you may find it dreadful and that's fine. I hate football, but respect the strategy and skill. Go ahead and hate baseball. Just... not in front of me.

A Game of Inches

The pitcher stands 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate. Figuring the average major league pitcher throws 90 miles per hour (but up to 105 mph, a record recently set by Reds reliever, Aroldis Chapman), that gives the hitter less than half a second to react. Which would be difficult enough assuming the pitch was straight. More often than not, it isn't. The batter must pick up on the release point of the pitcher's arm, the speed of the pitch, the rotation on the ball (curve, slider, sinker, offspeed, fastball, etc), decide whether it's in the strike zone, then decide whether to swing and how hard...... in less than half a second. It looks easy on TV, but I guarantee you, there's a reason you're watching and not doing. More of baseball's "inches" will be discussed under the section "A Game of Heartbreak."

A Game of History
There is an intangible quality to baseball. I assume this could be said of most sports (I'm fairly certain soccer is nothing but intangibles), but I would argue that it is especially true of baseball. Like jazz, it is unadulterated in its American roots. The numbers are just as true now as they were a hundred years ago and in a hundred years, hitting a curveball will be just as difficult. No amount of batting technology or progressive workouts (or new drugs) will make it easier.
For years baseball was a hobbyist's sport, but in 1869 the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professional team. They played other amateur teams until 1871 when the National Association formed the first professional league, replaced in 1875 by the National League. It has been temporarily put on hold for wars, strikes, and drugs, but has never been stopped. Names like Ruth, Gehrig, Rose, Williams, Mays, Mantle, DiMaggio, Koufax, and yes, even Bonds are immortalized gods. The history of baseball could be a blog unto itself, but I highly recommend Ken Burns' Baseball, an authoritative documentary. Very thorough and highly entertaining.

A Game of Strategy
One of the problems with baseball is that if you've never played it, you probably don't really understand it. Unlike football and basketball, the strategy is inherent and virtually invisible. Unless you know the domino effect of each pitch. Here's an example:
-- I'm playing center field with a runner on first and one out. The batter is a power-hitting lefty who likes to pull the ball. The runner on first has good speed. I know the pitcher will throw primarily fastballs, because anything offspeed and the runner has a better chance of stealing second. As long as the pitcher has the advantage in ball/strike count (0-1, 0-2, 1-2), I'll field for the batter. He's a power hitting lefty, who knows he's getting fastballs, so I'll shift a little to right field and play deep. If the pitcher falls behind in the count (1-0, 2-0, 2-1, etc), I'm going to be a little more concerned with the runner on first, because as center fielder, it's also my job to back up the catcher's throw to second should the runner try to steal. This means I'll play a little more shallow and a little more centered.
Each pitch to each batter changes everything. Don't even get me started on the strategy of pitching (scouting every possible batting opponent, who likes sliders, who hates high and in fastballs, who hits better with runners-on, pitch counts, etc). Unfortunately, we don't see any of this on TV unless we're looking for it.

A Game of Heartbreak
Though it has recently been broken, we'll start with the Curse of the Bambino. Between 1903-1918, the Red Sox were the premier team in professional baseball, winning 5 World Series and dominating the league. Much of this success was attributed to the play of Red Sox star, Babe Ruth (aka, The Bambino). But in 1919, the Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees (had not won a World Series to this point) to finance his broadway musical No, No, Nanette. Over the years, Frazee sold many players and managers to the Yankees for various musical endeavors. Between 1919 and 2003, the Yankees won 26 World Series to the Red Sox zero. As we all know, in 2004, that curse was broken.

The Chicago Cubs have not been as fortunate. Their last World Series title coming in 1908, the Cubs hold the longest championship drought over any other North American professional sports team. The lore of a curse on the Cubs first started with the Curse of the Billy Goat (more here), but has more recently taken the name of Steve Bartman. On October 14, 2003, the Cubs were ahead 3-0 in the eighth inning of Game 6. They were up 3 games to 2 on the Marlins and only needed 5 outs to get to the World Series for the first time since 1945 (had not won since 1908). It looked like the curse was over. Until a lifelong Cubs fan named Steve Bartman interfered with a foul ball, causing the Cubs outfielder to miss a pop fly in foul territory. The Marlins went on to win that game and the next, then the World Series. Had the ball traveled six inches to the left or right, who knows what the outcome of the 2003 World Series could have been.

There's a fairly lame (however charming) film starring Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore called Fever Pitch. At one point, Jimmy Fallon plays a little league coach, whining to one of the 13 year old kids on the team about the importance of his Boston Red Sox. His girlfriend doesn't understand, you see. She wants him to miss a few games and go to Paris for the weekend. The nerve, I know. The kid (who turns out to be shockingly Dr. Phillian) says, "You love the Red Sox. But have they ever loved you back?"

Baseball is, almost always, an unrequited love. As a scorned lover spurns advances, so your team will raise then dash your hopes. So you may ask,"Why bother with baseball? The toil, the misery, the curses, the shame? By your own admission, it will leave you writhing and weeping in failure?" Because in the immortal words of my father, his father, and his father before him... "There's always next year."


  1. Inspiring and beautiful post Dave, we can't wait for the world series, for a number of reasons:
    A). The Yankees are out
    B). These are the final games that matter
    C). Even though the season is long, we look forward to the start of next year. And some spring training games if we were back in SD!

    Eloquent writing as usual,

  2. Yeah, I'm loving that the World Series is Rangers v. Giants. FOX execs must be scratching their heads.